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Changing times at Bent's Old Fort

Bent's Old Fort National Historical Site Medium.jpeg
Posted at 12:50 AM, Mar 11, 2024
and last updated 2024-03-11 19:19:21-04

OTERO COUNTY, Colorado — A trip to Bent's Old Fort is a trip back in time. The sights, sounds, and smells are all meant to bring guests back to the pioneer days of the American West.

The cultural attraction recreates the experience of visiting the adobe trading post in its glory days. The original fort was built by the Bent and Saint Vrain Company in 1833 along the Santa Fe Trail.

Mexico had won independence from Spain a decade earlier and the trail became an international trade route connecting Missouri to Santa Fe. The fort was ideally located to capitalize on trade between fur trappers, native tribes, Mexicans, and Americans.

The Army expanded the fort a decade later during the Mexican-American War. By the American Civil War, it was already beginning to crumble.

"By 1865, and the post-Civil War era, portions of the building had collapsed," said Eric Leonard, Superintendent of the High Plains Group for the National Parks Service.

He explained how an enclosure on the southern edge of the building created during the 1845 expansion continued to serve as a stagecoach stop and postal station for the region. The great flood of 1920 washed away much of what remained from the fort's ruins.

The fort we see today is a reconstruction built by the National Parks Service after years of archaeological research and excavation. The Daughters of the American Revolution mapped out the Santa Fe Trail in the early 20th Century and purchased the land where the fort once stood.

They sold the property to the State of Colorado for $1 which later sold it to the National Parks Service for $1. The goal throughout the process was to rebuild the fort.

The same forces of nature that brought down the original fort continue to wear away at the reconstruction.

"For nearly 50 years, park service managers and staff have worked around a problem we have yet to find a satisfactory solution to and that's how to sustain the building in a low-cost method," Leonard said.

News 5 scheduled our visit on a Friday in February. The Parks Service enacted new limited winter hours this year in response to slower attendance during the cold season. From January 1 to March 17, the fort is only open Friday through Sunday.

A contractor stopped by during our visit to get a closer look at a falling porch on the second story of the fort. Leonard explained how concrete slabs were poured on top of the wooden roofs in hopes of protecting them from water damage during rain storms. Concrete beneath the cottonwood pillars is now spalling under the weight of the roof.

"Because of the concern around especially the asbestos in that concrete, that's not something that we want our own staff to do," Leonard said. "We're going to contract that out."

The conditions of the fort today are painful for John Carson to see.

"In the last three years, quite frankly, it's embarrassing to be associated with the place," Carson said.

He taught history to high school and college students here and worked for several years as a park ranger and interpreter at the fort.

The fort is important to Carson's family personally. His great-grandfather, legendary frontiersman Christopher "Kit" Carson, worked briefly as a hunter for the Bent and St. Vrain Company and married into the Bent family.

Carson knows many volunteer living historians who say they no longer feel welcome at the fort.

"It was a place where a person was proud to be associated with, and I can't say that today," Carson said.

Linda Bourne became a living historian at the fort in 2012. She is a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution and serves on the board of the Bent's Fort Chapter of the Santa Fe Trail Association.

Bourne said the Parks Service has scaled back public events involving living historians in recent years. Before the pandemic, there were regular camp outs along the river and large Fandangos at the Fort.

"This last year was really bad because we didn't get to hold nearly the same events, or on the same level," Bourne said.

Leonard said living historians will remain part of the fort's operation. However, he noted the increasing difficulty of finding people who are willing to commit the time and money needed to fill those roles.

"Living history will always be a part of what we do, but it might not be the best thing to do all the time," he said. "For some, you know, historic clothing can be confusing, or a little weird."

Guests at the fort may also notice fewer live animals. Leonard explained there has never been a designated animal caretaker.

"There's that saying, of when everyone's in charge of something, it who's in charge of something, and, and that creates some risk operationally," he said.

The National Parks Service developed a long-range plan in 2006 that calls for a reduction in the number of live animals kept at the fort year-round in favor of leasing animals for special events.

Larry Bourne, Linda's husband and the President of the Bent's Fort Chapter of the Santa Fe Trail Association, is troubled by the lack of community input surrounding the changes at the fort.

"I've requested that to have a meeting with Mr. Leonard, kind of an open forum and I've been told he doesn't want to do that," Bourne said.

LaDonna Hutton, Vice President of the Bent's Fort Chapter of the Santa Fe Trail Association and former President of the Santa Fe Trail Association, worries the changes at the fort will further reduce the number of visitors.

"There would have been a whole lot less anxiety if (Superintendent Leonard) would have held a public meeting in some way," Hutton said.

The current anxiety about the fort comes from a deep bond many people feel with the site. Kevin Lindahl was a senior in high school when the fort opened in 1976. He grew up watching the archaeology and reconstruction happening at the site.

"If you're there when they're doing blacksmithing, you hear the clanging of the of the iron, there's smoke from the fires for the cooking, the peacocks, the cats," Lindahl recalled. "You're walking back into history and it's alive."

La Junta resident Darla Youngblood said the fort represents more than just a moment in time for communities in the Lower Arkansas Valley. It's part of the region's identity.

"It's part of our history, it's part of this community and I can't even stand the thought of it not being what it has been."

Superintendent Leonard said the fort has many urgent needs, most notably the lack of a dedicated friends group. Leonard also supervises the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site, and the newly opened Amache National Historic Site. Both have dedicated friends groups.

"The National Park Service does not and cannot and never has done this work successfully by itself."

The easiest way for Southern Colorado residents support the fort is to come visit.

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